Lucia Puenzo’s chilling drama, Wakolda (2013), based on her novel, German Doctor, follows the unlikely friendship of 12-year old Lilith (Florencia Bado) and Josef Mengele (Alex Brendemühl), Auschwitz’s ‘Angel of Death’ on the run for his war crimes. A doctor, Mengele had conducted genetic research on human subjects in Auschwitz. After the Second World War, Argentina became a haven for Nazis who lived there, unchallenged, for decades. President Juan Peron was keen to exploit the expertise of Nazi doctors and scientists and turned a blind eye to the influx of war criminals. Wakolda opens in 1960 on a remote desert road in Patagonia.
Eva (Natalia Oriero) and her husband Enzo (Diego Peretti) are moving with their children to Bariloche, in the foothills of the Andes, to reopen Eva’s family hotel. It’s a region popular with tourists for its Alpine-style lodges, forest-fringed lakes, and imposing mountains, captured by Nicolás Puenzo’s beautiful cinematography. The dramatic surroundings imbue proceedings with a tangible sense of danger. Mengele, travelling under a false name, befriends the family and moves into their guest house. There is already a thriving German community in Bariloche with Nazi sympathisers everywhere. Mengele becomes obsessed with Lilith and her family and keeps detailed notes and sketches of them in his diary. Lilith, who narrates throughout, finds Mengele’s attention flattering, and follows him around like a puppy.
She discovers that he frequents a nearby lodge filled with hospital equipment and receives regular visitors via hydroplane. Lilith, born prematurely, is small for her age and is often bullied at the local German school. Mengele convinces Eva that he can help Lilith grow with hormone injections and begins experimenting on her. Eva is taken in by his charm, although Enzo is suspicious of his motives from the start. Mengele remains obsessed with racial purity and perfecting the human form. In a rather obvious parallel, he tries to win over Enzo by offering to develop his business making porcelain dolls – under Mengele’s proposed factory line all become scarily identical with blue eyes and mechanical hearts. Lilith’s doll, an early incarnation, gives the film its name. Things come to a head when Eva gives birth to premature boys and Mengele jumps at the chance to continue his deadly experiments on her twins. Wakolda starts well, it’s a compelling subject and there are plenty of plot twist and turns. But too much is packed into the final third and, towards the end, the film loses momentum. As a consequence, Mengele’s unveiling by, Nora (Elena Roger), an archivist and photographer at Eva’s school working for Mossad, feels rushed and lacks credibility.